“Borgia” vs. “The Borgias”
Canal+ vs. Showtime
Which was better?
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
I was very excited when Showtime announced that it had been working with Michael Hirst, of “The Tudors” and “Elizabeth I” to produce a show about the Borgia family, because I knew it would be visually beautiful. Nobody does costumes, sets and props better than Hirst. His actors are always top-notch, and this was no exception, with the inclusion of Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI.
Between the first and second seasons of the Showtime production, I signed up for Netflix Streaming service. I saw a production called “Borgia,” and thought it was Hirst’s. It was not. A completely different approach to the story of the Borgia family, it was produced by Canal+, a European company. It was and still is amazing.
The actual Borgias were a Spanish family, and when Rodrigo’s uncle became Pope Calixtus III he was made into a Cardinal. In 1492 he became pope himself, taking the name Alexander VI. He was popular with the common people, but deeply resented by the clergy, and his family was hated. He had at least six children, including the four that both shows represent, with a few more that are uncertain with later mistresses. Rumors spread about him and his children, including that he slept with his daughter Lucrezia and was the father of her children. The worst and most continually pervasive rumor was that his son Cesare killed his brother Juan because they were both sleeping with their sister and grew jealous. Cesare was deeply hated, known for his leaving a position as a Cardinal to attempt military campaigns, which killed him in the end. He was known to be cruel and unbending, harsh and arrogant, and may have been the inspiration for Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” as the two were friends. He was a patron of Leonardo da Vinci, who dreamed up weapons for him.
Cesare is more of the main character in both series, and with good reason. There is more information about him, and he is a very interesting character to use with as a writer. Pope Alexander is the next primary character, then Lucrezia and the rest of the family and their friends. Some historical information both shows got right, and some both got wrong.
When it came to casting, both shows seemed to have different objectives. Showtime’s series went after the best actors they could find for the parts, wither the actors resembled the portraits of the actual people or not. For example, the real Alexander was a large man, both in height and weight, but Irons is a thin man, and bares no resemblance to the pope. Every character was played with an English accent. Canal+ seems to have focused on appearance first. Each character looks like the portraits and other sources we have which show the appearances of these people. As for the accents, the producers of Canal+’s series pointed out that at that time Rome was a melting pot. They hired actors from all over and allowed them to, mostly, keep their accents. This works well in the Vatican and on the streets, but not so in the Borgia family. Rodrigo is played by an American, as was Jofre, the youngest; Cesare is played by an Irishman who takes an English accent; Juan was French; Lucrezia was Russian; their mother was the only one played by a Spaniard even though she was actually an Italian.
When it comes to the supporting cast, Canal+ covers them well. It presents the full compliment of cardinals, dukes, clergy, mistresses and friends, again with an array of accents. In Showtime’s production these are given only a cursory glance. We know that Alessandro Farnese is the brother of the pope’s mistress, Julia, but other than a few brief scenes we never see him. Farnese also became a pope, Paul III, and had a lifelong mistress named Silvia Ruffini and many children and grandchildren. We see him in an episode of “The Tudors” with the cardinals and his grandson, but in “The Borgias” we barely know who he is.
Lucrezia’s first husband and marriage are very misrepresented by Showtime, and more accurately shown by Canal+. She was only 13 when she was married to Giovanni Sforza, an illegitimate member of the Milanese family. Showtime has him taking Lucrezia to his home, where he rapes and beats her until she runs away. The reality is that she never left Rome, and the marriage was later annulled due to lack of consummation, which is shown by Canal+.
The final very important secondary character to be altered by Showtime and correctly represented by Canal+ was the “villain” Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere. Showtime has him running all over Europe, constantly looking for ways to kill the pope, who he resents for getting the papal throne which he believed he was due. While Della Rovere was never friends with Alexander, shortly after his election they began to work together, and he stayed in Rome. He was a political adversary, not a terrorist. After Alexander’s death, Cesare worked with Della Rovere and helped him become Pope Julius II. Canal+ shows them going from anger to friendship, which is never achieved by Showtime. In both shows he is an active homosexual, which he may have been.
Alexander himself is played better by John Doman, even though is not as talented an actor as Jeremy Irons. Beyond his physical similarity to the actual Alexander, Doman plays the pope as a politically active, conniving man who has one singular purpose, to further the causes of his own family and his friends. Irons plays him as a mainly innocent man, who is bent by the wind of his family’s actions, nearly clueless as to the cruelty they inflict. In the first season he seems surprised that the other cardinals do not like him. In Canal+’s production we see more of who Alexander was, because the series opens with Rodrigo in his position as Vice-Chancellor for the previous pontiff, Pope Innocent VIII, who then dies and opens the path for him. Showtime starts with the election, so we only see Rodrigo as Alexander.
Cesare is a very different man in both series, and this is one place where I think that Showtime excels. Firstly, they correctly place Cesare as the eldest of Rodrigo’s children with Vannozza de Cattanei. I do not know why Canal+ swapped him and Juan in birth order, except perhaps because it seems odd that the elder brother would be forced to go into the church while the younger would carry a title. It only makes sense once you realize that Cesare was not the eldest son of Alexander, and that their family was one built on the church. The eldest son was Pedro Luis, from Rodrigo’s relationship with an unknown mistress, as well as the eldest daughters Isabella and Girolama. They remained in Spain, and Pedro Luis had the title of Duke of Gandia, which was passed to Juan upon his death.
In Canal+’s show, the Cesare of the first season is whining, tortured and weak. He acts out of desperation and lives in regret, constantly complaining and committing harsh acts of penitence for his previous actions. In the second season, now seeing the way to free himself from the church, he becomes more calculating and less reactionary, and the true hardness of the actual Cesare begins to show. In Showtime’s production, Cesare is constantly calculating, willing to do anything at anytime so that he can further his and his family’s interests. He makes the harsh choices without regret, owning everything he has done. In my opinion, this cold and brutal man is more in line with the historical Cesare.
Lucrezia is a different woman in both shows. In Canal+’s production, she is just as calculating and cruel as her brothers, in some cases worse than they are. In Showtime’s she is a gentle, innocent girl who just wants equality with her brothers. The real Lucrezia had as much political savvy as her brothers, and knew how to position herself and her family to their benefit. She was the subject of many, many rumors, including affairs and illegitimate children, which are not believed to be actually hers. I believe she is more like Canal+’s character and less like Showtime’s.
There is one major plot point difference between the two shows. While the siblings in Canal+’s show flirt and proclaim their love, physical love nearly happens once, but it does not go far and none of the children are lovers. Showtime decided to take the rumor of Lucrezia and Cesare being lovers and make it real. In the 3rd season, they sleep together, and act like lovers at all times afterward.
While the costumes and sets for the Showtime production were beautiful, Canal+’s were a bit more honest. When you see the cardinals in Canal+’s show, their robes are different, varying colors and fabrics, which is more realistic. Not every cardinal was wealthy, and some may not have been able to afford the fabric dyed as richly as others, nor of materials of equal luxury. They seemed to have used fewer costumes and jewelry, and you see the same gowns repeatedly, which is also more honest. Even the very wealthy could not afford to only wear a garment once. The makeup is very natural, and I was surprised to learn that many of the characters are wearing wigs- the quality is very good, and it’s hard to pick out who is wearing one without already knowing. The only character whose hair I do not like is Lucrezia, who is played by an actress with red hair when she was a blonde.
In the end we will have three seasons of both shows, but because Canal+’s moves much faster I hope that we will have the total story of the family, at least to the point of Alexander’s death, if not after. Showtime pulled the plug on “The Borgias” close to the end of the 3rd season, and the story was never really finished. I have wondered if their choice to give credence the incest rumor led to the downfall of the viewers and support for the show.
Both programs use nudity and violence, but Canal+ does not make the violence humorous, nor the nudity illicit. It uses more nudity, and nearly every actor in the production has removed their clothes, but it is properly situational, and natural bodies are celebrated. The violence is brutal, but very realistic and accurate. There are several criminal executions, which I cannot watch because they are exactly as they were done at the time.
Each show chose a different culprit for the murder of Juan Borgia. I will not give it away, but as the murder was never solved, I like the direction Canal+ took for its creativity alone. Both show Lucrezia having an affair with a boy, who impregnates her and is killed, in Showtime’s by Juan and in Canal+ by Cesare. This did not happen, though there was a rumor that she had an affair with Pedro Calderone, shown in Canal+’s show, but while the rumors say that Giovanni Borgia was her son, it is believed that he was in fact Alexander’s son.
Both shows have wonderful opening titles. The music used in the first season of “Borgia” is an outstanding piece of work in its own right, and the second season and all seasons of “The Borgias” have wonderful music as well. In the first season of “The Borgias” several pieces from “The Tudors” and other Hirst productions were mixed in with famous paintings that had been slightly altered, which I found both lazy and distracting. You see Henry VIII stroke Anne Boleyn’s neck, and all I could think was that Hirst needed filler. The first season of “Borgia” contains a bit of nudity, the heaving chest of Julia Farnese, but it works so well with the music and show to not be offensive. I have to give the edge to Canal+.
So, in the end, which is the better show? They are equally inaccurate, in different ways. Just as Showtime gave us a show that was practically rose-colored, Canal+ gave us a show that was gritty and dark. In the end, it is Canal+’s production that I watch over and over again, which I enjoy every time. I cannot wait for the 3rd season to come to Netflix, so I can watch the end of the story.
Both shows are available on Netflix Streaming, and are available on DVD.
My main sources for the history were:
Bradford, Sarah. “Lucrezia Borgia.” 2004. Viking, New York.
Hollingsworth, Mary. “The Borgia Chronicles; 1414-1572.” 2011. Metro Books, New York.
And my husband, who found this family perpetually fascinating and devoted much study to them.